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University League Tables: How useful are they?

There are a dizzying number of league tables produces by newspapers and organisations, but with universities’ rankings varying so massively, how trustworthy are they?

The Guardian’s League Table

Let start as we mean to go on: league tables are only one of the resources you should be using when making decisions about which university is right for you. Aside from a common sense approach of looking at entry requirements, the social side of universities, the content of your chosen degree and more, university league tables also cause trouble for their differing methodologies, approaches, and values.

The Big Five

There are a huge number of rankings and tables, but the major players remain:

  • The Guardian
  • Times Higher Education (THE) (£)
  • The Sunday Times (£)
  • The Complete University Guide (CUG)
  • QS World Rankings

Each organisation approaches compiling their tables in different ways – which can lead to stark differences in the rankings of individual universities – but they also all broadly take into consideration a number of key metrics:

  • Entry requirements: Each organisation weighs entry requirements for courses heavily, but with the majority of students achieving more UCAS points than their offer stipulates, this is becoming an increasingly difficult metric for league tables to work around.
  • Student to staff ratios: This generally represents class sizes, however league tables often don’t account for teaching staff who only teach post-graduates or the number of hours you’ll get on average at that university, or even your chosen course.
  • Career prospects: This metric often represents the percentage of students that hold a ‘graduate-level’ job a certain period of time after graduating. Frustratingly, each ranking defines this differently: the Guardian include students in Further Education (MAs, MScs, PhDs), while the CUG commit only to ’employability of a university’s first degree graduates’.
  • Student satisfaction: Perhaps the most contentious of the universal metrics. This data is taken from students opinions of their course/university. It can, however, often be slanted by issues of the day and not the university’s academic environment. As a result, high ranking elite universities can be ranked relatively low.

How to Read University League Tables

With each league table approaching the process of ranking universities in different ways, how should you approach them?

Decide what kind of information you value most
If you’re more interested in a university’s academic reputation and want to obtain a degree from a university with a big name and international reputation, you might want to focus on metrics like research output and general ranking. If you’re more interested in a creative, social university experience, student satisfaction ratings might me more insightful for you.

King’s College London, for example, is widely regarded as the best university to student Dentistry (given neither Oxford nor Cambridge teach it), but it’s student satisfaction rating sees it ranked 58th in the country by the Guardian. Think carefully about what you’re looking for.

Think outside of rankings
There’s plenty of exceptionally important information you should be considering when making your university choices that league tables don’t cover. Things like the content of courses (the actual modules they teach on your chosen degree), your contact hours (the amount of time you have face-to-face with a professor), and the quality of student housing are not represented on rankings. Those small rankings which do try to take these into account come up with such subjective assessments, they’re practically useless. Make sure you’re considering all the information when you’re making your decision.

Rankings can be misleading
League tables and their methodologies are an imperfect art, as a result universities can slip through the cracks. Institutions can be leaders in their field, but their specialism necessarily make them smaller institutions which can’t complete in national rankings based on research output and academic citations. The Courtauld Institute, which only offers a single undergraduate degree (BA History of Art), is widely recognised as one of the best art-historical universities in the world, but rarely makes it on to national league tables.

“League tables are often closely bunched together at the top, middle and bottom, so don’t read too much into universities placed five to 10 places apart. A university in 20th place is usually separated by the one in 30th by only a few percentage points. This is also why some unis and courses fluctuate from year to year. Small differences in score can mean big differences in placing.”

Higher Education Liaison Officers Association (heloa)